Jean-Jacques Rousseau; 28 June 1712 – 2 July 1778) was a Genevan philosopher (philosophe), writer, and composer. His political philosophy influenced the progress of the Age of Enlightenment throughout Europe, as well as aspects of the French Revolution and the development of modern political, economic, and educational thought. His Discourse on Inequality and The Social Contract are cornerstones in modern political and social thought. Rousseau’s sentimental novel Julie, or the New Heloise (1761) was important to the development of preromanticism and romanticism in fiction. His Emile, or On Education (1762) is an educational treatise on the place of the individual in society. Rousseau’s autobiographical writings—the posthumously published Confessions (composed in 1769), which initiated the modern autobiography, and the unfinished Reveries of the Solitary Walker (composed 1776–1778)—exemplified the late 18th-century “Age of Sensibility”, and featured an increased focus on subjectivity and introspection that later characterized modern writing.
Rousseau was born in Geneva, which was at the time a city-state and a Protestant associate of the Swiss Confederacy (now a canton of Switzerland). Since 1536, Geneva had been a Huguenot republic and the seat of Calvinism. Five generations before Rousseau, his ancestor Didier, a bookseller who may have published Protestant tracts, had escaped persecution from French Catholics by fleeing to Geneva in 1549, where he became a wine merchant.
Rousseau was proud that his family, of the moyen order (or middle-class), had voting rights in the city. Throughout his life, he generally signed his books “Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Citizen of Geneva”. Geneva, in theory, was governed “democratically” by its male voting “citizens”. The citizens were a minority of the population when compared to the immigrants, referred to as “inhabitants”, whose descendants were called “natives” and continued to lack suffrage. In fact, rather than being run by vote of the “citizens”, the city was ruled by a small number of wealthy families that made up the “Council of Two Hundred”; these delegated their power to a 25-member executive group from among them called the “Little Council” There was much political debate within Geneva, extending down to the tradespeople. Much discussion was over the idea of the sovereignty of the people, of which the ruling class oligarchy was making a mockery. In 1707, a democratic reformer named Pierre Fatio protested this situation, saying “a sovereign that never performs an act of sovereignty is an imaginary being”. He was shot by order of the Little Council. Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s father, Isaac, was not in the city at this time, but Jean-Jacques’s grandfather supported Fatio and was penalized for it. Rousseau’s father, Isaac Rousseau, followed his grandfather, father and brothers into the watchmaking business. He also taught dance for a short period. Isaac, notwithstanding his artisan status, was well educated and a lover of music. Rousseau wrote that “A Genevan watchmaker is a man who can be introduced anywhere; a Parisian watchmaker is only fit to talk about watches”. In 1699, Isaac ran into political difficulty by entering a quarrel with visiting English officers, who in response drew their swords and threatened him. After local officials stepped in, it was Isaac who was punished, as Geneva was concerned with maintaining its ties to foreign powers.
Rousseau’s mother, Suzanne Bernard Rousseau, was from an upper-class family. She was raised by her uncle Samuel Bernard, a Calvinist preacher. He cared for Suzanne after her father, Jacques, who had run into trouble with the legal and religious authorities for fornication and having a mistress, died in his early 30s. In 1695, Suzanne had to answer charges that she had attended a street theater disguised as a peasant woman so she could gaze upon M. Vincent Sarrasin, whom she fancied despite his continuing marriage. After a hearing, she was ordered by the Genevan Consistory to never interact with him again. She married Rousseau’s father at the age of 31. Isaac’s sister had married Suzanne’s brother eight years earlier, after she had become pregnant and they had been chastised by the Consistory. The child died at birth. The young Rousseau was told a fabricated story about the situation in which young love had been denied by a disapproving patriarch but later prevailed, resulting in two marriages uniting the families on the same day. Rousseau never learnt the truth. Rousseau was born on 28 June 1712, and he would later relate: “I was born almost dying, they had little hope of saving me”. He was baptized on 4 July 1712, in the great cathedral. His mother died of puerperal fever nine days after his birth, which he later described as “the first of my misfortunes”. He and his older brother François were brought up by their father and a paternal aunt, also named Suzanne. When Rousseau was five, his father sold the house that the family had received from his mother’s relatives. While the idea was that his sons would inherit the principal when grown up and he would live off the interest in the meantime, in the end the father took most of the substantial proceeds. With the selling of the house, the Rousseau family moved out of the upper-class neighborhood and moved into an apartment house in a neighborhood of craftsmen—silversmiths, engravers, and other watchmakers. Growing up around craftsmen, Rousseau would later contrast them favorably to those who produced more aesthetic works, writing “those important persons who are called artists rather than artisans, work solely for the idle and rich, and put an arbitrary price on their baubles”. Rousseau was also exposed to class politics in this environment, as the artisans often agitated in a campaign of resistance against the privileged class running Geneva.
Rousseau had no recollection of learning to read, but he remembered how when he was five or six his father encouraged his love of reading: Every night, after supper, we read some part of a small collection of romances [adventure stories], which had been my mother’s. My father’s design was only to improve me in reading, and he thought these entertaining works were calculated to give me a fondness for it; but we soon found ourselves so interested in the adventures they contained, that we alternately read whole nights together and could not bear to give over until at the conclusion of a volume. Sometimes, in the morning, on hearing the swallows at our window, my father, quite ashamed of this weakness, would cry, “Come, come, let us go to bed; I am more a child than thou art”.
Rousseau’s reading of escapist stories (such as L’Astrée by Honoré d’Urfé) had an effect on him; he later wrote that they “gave me bizarre and romantic notions of human life, which experience and reflection have never been able to cure me of”. After they had finished reading the novels, they began to read a collection of ancient and modern classics left by his mother’s uncle. Of these, his favorite was Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans, which he would read to his father while he made watches. Rousseau saw Plutarch’s work as another kind of novel—the noble actions of heroes—and he would act out the deeds of the characters he was reading about. In his Confessions, Rousseau stated that the reading of Plutarch’s works and “the conversations between my father and myself to which it gave rise, formed in me the free and republican spirit”. Witnessing the local townsfolk participate in militias made a big impression on Rousseau. Throughout his life, he would recall one scene where, after the volunteer militia had finished its manoeuvres, they began to dance around a fountain and most of the people from neighboring buildings came out to join them, including him and his father. Rousseau would always see militias as the embodiment of popular spirit in opposition to the armies of the rulers, whom he saw as disgraceful mercenaries. When Rousseau was ten, his father, an avid hunter, got into a legal quarrel with a wealthy landowner on whose lands he had been caught trespassing. To avoid certain defeat in the courts, he moved away to Nyon in the territory of Bern, taking Rousseau’s aunt Suzanne with him. He remarried, and from that point Jean-Jacques saw little of him. Jean-Jacques was left with his maternal uncle, who packed him, along with his own son, Abraham Bernard, away to board for two years with a Calvinist minister in a hamlet outside Geneva. Here, the boys picked up the elements of mathematics and drawing. Rousseau, who was always deeply moved by religious services, for a time even dreamed of becoming a Protestant minister.
Virtually all our information about Rousseau’s youth has come from his posthumously published Confessions, in which the chronology is somewhat confused, though recent scholars have combed the archives for confirming evidence to fill in the blanks. At age 13, Rousseau was apprenticed first to a notary and then to an engraver who beat him. At 15, he ran away from Geneva (on 14 March 1728) after returning to the city and finding the city gates locked due to the curfew. In adjoining Savoy he took shelter with a Roman Catholic priest, who introduced him to Françoise-Louise de Warens, age 29. She was a noblewoman of Protestant background who was separated from her husband. As professional lay proselytizer, she was paid by the King of Piedmont to help bring Protestants to Catholicism. They sent the boy to Turin, the capital of Savoy (which included Piedmont, in what is now Italy), to complete his conversion. This resulted in his having to give up his Genevan citizenship, although he would later revert to Calvinism to regain it. In converting to Catholicism, both de Warens and Rousseau were likely reacting to Calvinism’s insistence on the total depravity of man. Leo Damrosch writes: “An eighteenth-century Genevan liturgy still required believers to declare ‘that we are miserable sinners, born in corruption, inclined to evil, incapable by ourselves of doing good'”. De Warens, a deist by inclination, was attracted to Catholicism’s doctrine of forgiveness of sins. Finding himself on his own, since his father and uncle had more or less disowned him, the teenage Rousseau supported himself for a time as a servant, secretary, and tutor, wandering in Italy (Piedmont and Savoy) and France. During this time, he lived on and off with de Warens, whom he idolized and called his maman. Flattered by his devotion, de Warens tried to get him started in a profession, and arranged formal music lessons for him. At one point, he briefly attended a seminary with the idea of becoming a priest.
When Rousseau reached 20, de Warens took him as her lover, while intimate also with the steward of her house. The sexual aspect of their relationship (a ménage à trois) confused Rousseau and made him uncomfortable, but he always considered de Warens the greatest love of his life. A rather profligate spender, she had a large library and loved to entertain and listen to music. She and her circle, comprising educated members of the Catholic clergy, introduced Rousseau to the world of letters and ideas. Rousseau had been an indifferent student, but during his 20s, which were marked by long bouts of hypochondria, he applied himself in earnest to the study of philosophy, mathematics, and music. At 25, he came into a small inheritance from his mother and used a portion of it to repay de Warens for her financial support of him. At 27, he took a job as a tutor in Lyon. In 1742, Rousseau moved to Paris to present the Académie des Sciences with a new system of numbered musical notation he believed would make his fortune. His system, intended to be compatible with typography, is based on a single line, displaying numbers representing intervals between notes and dots and commas indicating rhythmic values. Believing the system was impractical, the Academy rejected it, though they praised his mastery of the subject, and urged him to try again. He befriended Denis Diderot that year, connecting over the discussion of literary endeavors. From 1743 to 1744, Rousseau had an honorable but ill-paying post as a secretary to the Comte de Montaigue, the French ambassador to Venice. This awoke in him a lifelong love for Italian music, particularly opera: I had brought with me from Paris the prejudice of that city against Italian music; but I had also received from nature a sensibility and niceness of distinction which prejudice cannot withstand. I soon contracted that passion for Italian music with which it inspires all those who are capable of feeling its excellence. In listening to barcaroles, I found I had not yet known what singing was…
Confessions: Rousseau’s employer routinely received his stipend as much as a year late and paid his staff irregularly. After 11 months, Rousseau quit, taking from the experience a profound distrust of government bureaucracy.
Return to Paris
Returning to Paris, the penniless Rousseau befriended and became the lover of Thérèse Levasseur, a seamstress who was the sole support of her mother and numerous ne’er-do-well siblings. At first, they did not live together, though later Rousseau took Thérèse and her mother in to live with him as his servants, and himself assumed the burden of supporting her large family. According to his Confessions, before she moved in with him, Thérèse bore him a son and as many as four other children. Rousseau wrote that he persuaded Thérèse to give each of the newborns up to a foundling hospital, for the sake of her “honor”. “Her mother, who feared the inconvenience of a brat, came to my aid, and she [Thérèse] allowed herself to be overcome” (Confessions). In his letter to Madame de Francueil in 1751, he first pretended that he was not rich enough to raise his children, but in Book IX of the Confessions he gave the true reasons of his choice: “I trembled at the thought of intrusting them to a family ill brought up, to be still worse educated. The risk of the education of the foundling hospital was much less”. Ten years later, Rousseau made inquiries about the fate of his son, but no record could be found. When Rousseau subsequently became celebrated as a theorist of education and child-rearing, his abandonment of his children was used by his critics, including Voltaire and Edmund Burke, as the basis for arguments ad hominem.
Beginning with some articles on music in 1749, Rousseau contributed numerous articles to Diderot and D’Alembert’s great Encyclopédie, the most famous of which was an article on political economy written in 1755. Rousseau’s ideas were the result of an almost obsessive dialogue with writers of the past, filtered in many cases through conversations with Diderot. In 1749, Rousseau was paying daily visits to Diderot, who had been thrown into the fortress of Vincennes under a lettre de cachet for opinions in his “Lettre sur les aveugles”, that hinted at materialism, a belief in atoms, and natural selection. According to science historian Conway Zirkle, Rousseau saw the concept of natural selection “as an agent for improving the human species.” Rousseau had read about an essay competition sponsored by the Académie de Dijon to be published in the Mercure de France on the theme of whether the development of the arts and sciences had been morally beneficial. He wrote that while walking to Vincennes (about three miles from Paris), he had a revelation that the arts and sciences were responsible for the moral degeneration of mankind, who were basically good by nature. Rousseau’s 1750 Discourse on the Arts and Sciences was awarded the first prize and gained him significant fame. Rousseau continued his interest in music. He wrote both the words and music of his opera Le devin du village (The Village Soothsayer), which was performed for King Louis XV in 1752. The king was so pleased by the work that he offered Rousseau a lifelong pension. To the exasperation of his friends, Rousseau turned down the great honor, bringing him notoriety as “the man who had refused a king’s pension”. He also turned down several other advantageous offers, sometimes with a brusqueness bordering on truculence that gave offense and caused him problems. The same year, the visit of a troupe of Italian musicians to Paris, and their performance of Giovanni Battista Pergolesi’s La serva padrona, prompted the Querelle des Bouffons, which pitted protagonists of French music against supporters of the Italian style. Rousseau, as noted above, was an enthusiastic supporter of the Italians against Jean-Philippe Rameau and others, making an important contribution with his Letter on French Music.
Return to Geneva
On returning to Geneva in 1754, Rousseau reconverted to Calvinism and regained his official Genevan citizenship. In 1755, Rousseau completed his second major work, the Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men (the Discourse on Inequality), which elaborated on the arguments of the Discourse on the Arts and Sciences. He also pursued an unconsummated romantic attachment with the 25-year-old Sophie d’Houdetot, which partly inspired his epistolary novel Julie, ou la nouvelle Héloïse (also based on memories of his idyllic youthful relationship with Mme de Warens). Sophie was the cousin and houseguest of Rousseau’s patroness and landlady Madame d’Épinay, whom he treated rather high-handedly. He resented being at Mme. d’Épinay’s beck and call and detested the insincere conversation and shallow atheism of the Encyclopédistes whom he met at her table. Wounded feelings gave rise to a bitter three-way quarrel between Rousseau and Madame d’Épinay; her lover, the journalist Grimm; and their mutual friend, Diderot, who took their side against Rousseau. Diderot later described Rousseau as being “false, vain as Satan, ungrateful, cruel, hypocritical, and wicked… He sucked ideas from me, used them himself, and then affected to despise me”. Rousseau’s break with the Encyclopédistes coincided with the composition of his three major works, in all of which he emphasized his fervent belief in a spiritual origin of man’s soul and the universe, in contradistinction to the materialism of Diderot, La Mettrie and D’Holbach. During this period, Rousseau enjoyed the support and patronage of Charles II François Frédéric de Montmorency-Luxembourg and the Prince de Conti, two of the richest and most powerful nobles in France. These men truly liked Rousseau and enjoyed his ability to converse on any subject, but they also used him as a way of getting back at Louis XV and the political faction surrounding his mistress, Madame de Pompadour. Even with them, however, Rousseau went too far, courting rejection when he criticized the practice of tax farming, in which some of them engaged. Rousseau’s 800-page novel of sentiment, Julie, ou la nouvelle Héloïse, was published in 1761 to immense success. The book’s rhapsodic descriptions of the natural beauty of the Swiss countryside struck a chord in the public and may have helped spark the subsequent nineteenth-century craze for Alpine scenery. In 1762, Rousseau published Du Contrat Social, Principes du droit politique (in English, literally of the Social Contract, Principles of Political Right) in April. Even his friend Antoine-Jacques Roustan felt impelled to write a polite rebuttal of the chapter on Civil Religion in the Social Contract, which implied that the concept of a Christian republic was paradoxical since Christianity taught submission rather than participation in public affairs. Rousseau helped Roustan find a publisher for the rebuttal.
Rousseau published Emile, or On Education in May. A famous section of Emile, “The Profession of Faith of a Savoyard Vicar”, was intended to be a defense of religious belief. Rousseau’s choice of a Catholic vicar of humble peasant background, as a spokesman for the defense of religion was in itself a daring innovation for the time. The vicar’s creed was that of Socinianism. Because it rejected original sin and divine revelation, both Protestant and Catholic authorities took offense. Moreover, Rousseau advocated the opinion that, insofar as they lead people to virtue, all religions are equally worthy, and that people should therefore conform to the religion in which they have been brought up. This religious indifferentism caused Rousseau and his books to be banned from France and Geneva. He was condemned from the pulpit by the Archbishop of Paris, his books were burned and warrants were issued for his arrest. Former friends such as Jacob Vernes of Geneva could not accept his views, and wrote violent rebuttals. A sympathetic observer, David Hume “professed no surprise when he learned that Rousseau’s books were banned in Geneva and elsewhere”. Rousseau, he wrote, “has not had the precaution to throw any veil over his sentiments; and, as he scorns to dissemble his contempt for established opinions, he could not wonder that all the zealots were in arms against him. The liberty of the press is not so secured in any country… as not to render such an open attack on popular prejudice somewhat dangerous”.
Voltaire and Frederick the Great
After Rousseau’s Emile had outraged the French parliament, an arrest order was issued by parliament against him, causing him to flee to Switzerland. Subsequently, when the Swiss authorities also proved unsympathetic to him—condemning both Emile, and also The Social Contract—Voltaire issued an invitation to Rousseau to come and reside with him, commenting that: “I shall always love the author of the ‘Vicaire savoyard’ whatever he has done, and whatever he may do…Let him come here [to Ferney]! He must come! I shall receive him with open arms. He shall be master here more than I. I shall treat him like my own son”. Rousseau later expressed regret that he had not replied to Voltaire’s invitation. In July 1762, after Rousseau was informed that he could not continue to reside in Bern, d’Alembert advised him to move to the Principality of Neuchâtel, ruled by Frederick the Great of Prussia. Subsequently, Rousseau accepted an invitation to reside in Môtiers, fifteen miles from Neuchâtel. On 11 July 1762, Rousseau wrote to Frederick, describing how he had been driven from France, from Geneva, and from Bern; and seeking Frederick’s protection. He also mentioned that he had criticized Frederick in the past and would continue to be critical of Frederick in the future, stating however: “Your Majesty may dispose of me as you like.” Frederick, still in the middle of the Seven Years’ War, then wrote to the local governor of Neuchâtel, Marischal Keith, who was a mutual friend of theirs: We must succor this poor unfortunate. His only offense is to have strange opinions which he thinks are good ones. I will send a hundred crowns; from which you will be kind enough to give him as much as he needs. I think he will accept them in kind more readily than in cash. If we were not at war, if we were not ruined, I would build him a hermitage with a garden, where he could live as I believe our first fathers did…I think poor Rousseau has missed his vocation; he was obviously born to be a famous anchorite, a desert father, celebrated for his austerities and flagellations…I conclude that the morals of your savage are as pure as his mind is illogical.
Rousseau, touched by the help he received from Frederick, stated that from then onwards he took a keen interest in Frederick’s activities. As the Seven Years’ War was about to end, Rousseau wrote to Frederick again, thanking him for the help received and urging him to put an end to military activities and to endeavor to keep his subjects happy instead. Frederick made no known reply, but commented to Keith that Rousseau had given him a “scolding”.
For more than two years (1762–1765) Rousseau lived at Môtiers, spending his time in reading and writing and meeting visitors such as James Boswell (December 1764). In the meantime, the local ministers had become aware of the apostasies in some of his writings, and resolved not to let him stay in the vicinity. The Neuchâtel Consistory summoned Rousseau to answer a charge of blasphemy. He wrote back asking to be excused due to his inability to sit for a long time due to his ailment. Subsequently, Rousseau’s own pastor, Frédéric-Guillaume de Montmollin, started denouncing him publicly as the Antichrist. In one inflammatory sermon, Montmollin quoted Proverbs 15:8: “The sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination to the Lord, but the prayer of the upright is his delight”; this was interpreted by everyone to mean that Rousseau’s taking communion was detested by the Lord. The ecclesiastical attacks inflamed the parishioners, who proceeded to pelt Rousseau with stones when he would go out for walks. Around midnight of 6–7 September 1765, stones were thrown at the house Rousseau was staying in, and some glass windows were shattered. When a local official, Martinet, arrived at Rousseau’s residence he saw so many stones on the balcony that he exclaimed “My God, it’s a quarry!” At this point, Rousseau’s friends in Môtiers advised him to leave the town. Since he wanted to remain in Switzerland, Rousseau decided to accept an offer to move to a tiny island, the Île de St.-Pierre, having a solitary house. Although it was within the Canton of Bern, from where he had been expelled two years previously, he was informally assured that he could move into this island house without fear of arrest, and he did so (10 September 1765). Here, despite the remoteness of his retreat, visitors sought him out as a celebrity. However, on 17 October 1765, the Senate of Bern ordered Rousseau to leave the island and all Bernese territory within fifteen days. He replied, requesting permission to extend his stay, and offered to be incarcerated in any place within their jurisdiction with only a few books in his possession and permission to walk occasionally in a garden while living at his own expense. The Senate’s response was to direct Rousseau to leave the island, and all Bernese territory, within twenty-four hours. On 29 October 1765 he left the Île de St.-Pierre and moved to Strasbourg. At this point: He had invitations to Potsdam from Frederick, to Corsica from Paoli, to Lorraine from Saint-Lambert, to Amsterdam from Rey the publisher, and to England from David Hume.
On 4 January 1766 Rousseau left Paris with Hume, the merchant De Luze (an old friend of Rousseau), and Rousseau’s pet dog Sultan. After a four-day journey to Calais, where they stayed for two nights, the travelers embarked on a ship to Dover. On 13 January 1766 they arrived in London. Soon after their arrival, David Garrick arranged a box at the Drury Lane Theatre for Hume and Rousseau on a night when the King and Queen also attended. Garrick was himself performing in a comedy by himself, and also in a tragedy by Voltaire. Rousseau became so excited during the performance that he leaned too far and almost fell out of the box; Hume observed that the King and Queen were looking at Rousseau more than at the performance. Afterwards, Garrick served supper for Rousseau, who commended Garrick’s acting: “Sir, you have made me shed tears at your tragedy, and smile at your comedy, though I scarce understood a word of your language.” At this time, Hume had a favorable opinion of Rousseau; in a letter to Madame de Brabantane, Hume wrote that after observing Rousseau carefully he had concluded that he had never met a more affable and virtuous person. According to Hume, Rousseau was “gentle, modest, affectionate, disinterested, of extreme sensitivity”. Initially, Hume lodged Rousseau in the house of Madam Adams in London, but Rousseau began receiving so many visitors that he soon wanted to move to a quieter location. An offer came to lodge him in a Welsh monastery, and he was inclined to accept it, but Hume persuaded him to move to Chiswick. Rousseau now asked for Thérèse to rejoin him. Meanwhile, James Boswell, then in Paris, offered to escort Thérèse to Rousseau. (Boswell had earlier met Rousseau and Thérèse at Motiers; he had subsequently also sent Thérèse a garnet necklace and had written to Rousseau seeking permission to occasionally communicate with her.) Hume foresaw what was going to happen: “I dread some event fatal to our friend’s honor.” Boswell and Thérèse were together for more than a week, and as per notes in Boswell’s diary they consummated the relationship, having intercourse several times. On one occasion, Thérèse told Boswell: “Don’t imagine you are a better lover than Rousseau.” Since Rousseau was keen to relocate to a more remote location, Richard Davenport—a wealthy and elderly widower who spoke French—offered to accommodate Thérèse and Rousseau at Wootton Hall in Staffordshire. On 22 March 1766 Rousseau and Thérèse set forth for Wootton, against Hume’s advice. Hume and Rousseau would never meet again. Initially Rousseau liked his new accommodation at Wootton Hall, and wrote favorably about the natural beauty of the place, and how he was feeling reborn, forgetting past sorrows.
In 1766, Rousseau had impressed Hume with his physical prowess by spending ten hours at night on the deck in severe weather during the journey by ship from Calais to Dover while Hume was confined to his bunk. “When all the seamen were almost frozen to death…he caught no harm…He is one of the most robust men I have ever known,” Hume noted. By 1770, Rousseau’s urinary disease had also been greatly alleviated after he stopped listening to the advice of doctors. At that time, notes Damrosch, it was often better to let nature take its own course rather than subject oneself to medical procedures. His general health had also improved. However, on 24 October 1776, as he was walking on a narrow street in Paris a nobleman’s carriage came rushing by from the opposite direction; flanking the carriage was a galloping Great Dane belonging to the nobleman. Rousseau was unable to dodge both the carriage and the dog, and was knocked down by the Great Dane. He seems to have suffered a concussion and neurological damage. His health began to decline; Rousseau’s friend Corancez described the appearance of certain symptoms which indicate that Rousseau started suffering from epileptic seizures after the accident. In 1777, Rousseau received a royal visitor, when the Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II came to meet him. His free entry to the Opera had been renewed by this time and he would go there occasionally. At this time also (1777–1778), he composed one of his finest works, Reveries of a Solitary Walker.
In the spring of 1778, the Marquis Girardin invited Rousseau to live in a cottage in his château at Ermenonville. Rousseau and Thérèse went there on 20 May. Rousseau spent his time at the château in collecting botanical specimens, and teaching botany to Girardin’s son. He ordered books from Paris on grasses, mosses and mushrooms, and made plans to complete his unfinished Emile and Sophie and Daphnis and Chloe. On 1 July, a visitor commented that “men are wicked”, to which Rousseau replied with “men are wicked, yes, but man is good”; in the evening there was a concert in the château in which Rousseau played on the piano his own composition of the Willow Song from Othello. On this day also, he had a hearty meal with Girardin’s family; Following his death, Grimm, Madame de Staël and others spread the false news that Rousseau had committed suicide; according to other gossip, Rousseau was insane when he died. All those who met him in his last days agree that he was in a serene frame of mind at this time. On 4 July 1778, Rousseau was buried on the Île des Peupliers, a tiny wooded island in a lake near Ermenonville, which became a place of pilgrimage for his many admirers. On 11 October 1794, his remains were moved to the Panthéon, where they were placed near the remains of Voltaire.
Rousseau later noted, that when he read the question for the essay competition of the Academy of Dijon, which he would go on to win: “Has the rebirth of the arts and sciences contributed to the purification of the morals?”, he felt that “the moment I read this announcement I saw another universe and became a different man”. The essay he wrote in response led to one of the central themes of Rousseau’s thought, which was that perceived social and cultural progress had in fact led only to the moral degradation of humanity. His influences to this conclusion included Montesquieu, François Fénelon, Michel de Montaigne, Seneca the Younger, Plato, and Plutarch. Rousseau based his political philosophy on contract theory and his reading of Thomas Hobbes. Reacting to the ideas of Samuel von Pufendorf and John Locke was also driving his thought. All three thinkers had believed that humans living without central authority were facing uncertain conditions in a state of mutual competition. In contrast, Rousseau believed that there was no explanation for why this would be the case, as there would have been no conflict or property. Rousseau especially criticized Hobbes for asserting that since man in the “state of nature… has no idea of goodness he must be naturally wicked; that he is vicious because he does not know virtue”. On the contrary, Rousseau holds that “uncorrupted morals” prevail in the “state of nature”.
The first man who, having fenced in a piece of land, said ‘This is mine’, and found people naïve enough to believe him, that man was the true founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars, and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not any one have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows: Beware of listening to this impostor; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody.
In common with other philosophers of the day, Rousseau looked to a hypothetical “state of nature” as a normative guide. In the original condition, humans would have had “no moral relations with or determinate obligations to one another”. Because of their rare contact with each other, differences between individuals would have been of little significance. Living separately, there would have been no feelings of envy or distrust, and no existence of property or conflict. According to Rousseau, humans have two traits in common with other animals: the amour de soi, which describes the self-preservation instinct; and pitié, which is empathy for the rest of one’s species, both of which precede reason and sociability. Only humans who are morally deprived would care only about their relative status to others, leading to amour-propre, or vanity. He did not believe humans to be innately superior to other species. However, human beings did have the unique ability to change their nature through free choice, instead of being confined to natural instincts. Another aspect separating humans from other animals is the ability of perfectability, which allows humans to choose in a way that improves their condition. These improvements could be lasting, leading not only to individual, but also collective change for the better. Together with human freedom, the ability to improve makes possible the historic evolution of humanity. However, there is no guarantee that this evolution will be for the better.
Rousseau asserted that the stage of human development associated with what he called “savages” was the best or optimal in human development, between the less-than-optimal extreme of brute animals on the one hand and the extreme of decadent civilization on the other. “…nothing is so gentle as man in his primitive state, when placed by nature at an equal distance from the stupidity of brutes and the fatal enlightenment of civil man”. This has led some critics to attribute to Rousseau the invention of the idea of the noble savage, which Arthur Lovejoy claimed misrepresents Rousseau’s thought. According to Rousseau, as savages had grown less dependent on nature, they had instead become dependent on each other, with society leading to the loss of freedom through the misapplication of perfectability. When living together, humans would have gone from a nomadic lifestyle to a settled one, leading to the invention of private property. However, the resulting inequality was not a natural outcome, but rather the product of human choice. Rousseau’s ideas of human development were highly interconnected with forms of mediation, or the processes that individual humans use to interact with themselves and others while using an alternate perspective or thought process. According to Rousseau, these were developed through the innate perfectibility of humanity. These include a sense of self, morality, pity, and imagination. Rousseau’s writings are purposely ambiguous concerning the formation of these processes to the point that mediation is always intrinsically part of humanity’s development. An example of this is the notion that an individual needs an alternative perspective to come to the realization that he or she is a ‘self’.
As long as differences in wealth and status among families were minimal, the first coming together in groups was accompanied by a fleeting golden age of human flourishing. The development of agriculture, metallurgy, private property, and the division of labour and resulting dependency on one another, however, led to economic inequality and conflict. As population pressures forced them to associate more and more closely, they underwent a psychological transformation: they began to see themselves through the eyes of others and came to value the good opinion of others as essential to their self-esteem.
As humans started to compare themselves with each other, they began to notice that some had qualities differentiating them from others. However, only when moral significance was attached to these qualities did they start to create esteem and envy, and thereby, social hierarchies. Rousseau noted that whereas “the savage lives within himself, sociable man, always outside himself, can only live in the opinion of others”. This then resulted in the corruption of humankind, “producing combinations fatal to innocence and happiness”. Following the attachment of importance to human difference, they would have started forming social institutions, according to Rousseau. Metallurgy and agriculture would have subsequently increased the inequalities between those with and without property. After all land had been converted into private properties, a zero-sum game would have resulted in competition for it, leading to conflict. This would have led to the creation and perpetuation of the ‘hoax’ of the political system by the rich, which perpetuated their power.
According to Rousseau, the original forms of government to emerge: monarchy, aristocracy, democracy, were all products of the differing levels of inequality in their societies. However, they would always end up with ever worse levels of inequality, until a revolution would have overthrown it and new leaders would have emerged with further extremes of injustice. Nevertheless, the human capacity for self-improvement remained. As the problems of humanity were the product of political choice, they could also be improved by a better political system. The Social Contract outlines the basis for a legitimate political order within a framework of classical republicanism. Published in 1762, it became one of the most influential works of political philosophy in the Western tradition. It developed some of the ideas mentioned in an earlier work, the article Économie Politique (Discourse on Political Economy), featured in Diderot’s Encyclopédie. In the book, Rousseau sketched the image of a new political system for regaining human freedom. Rousseau claimed that the state of nature was a primitive condition without law or morality, which human beings left for the benefits and necessity of cooperation. As society developed, the division of labor and private property required the human race to adopt institutions of law. In the degenerate phase of society, man is prone to be in frequent competition with his fellow men while also becoming increasingly dependent on them. This double pressure threatens both his survival and his freedom.
According to Rousseau, by joining together into civil society through the social contract and abandoning their claims of natural right, individuals can both preserve themselves and remain free. This is because submission to the authority of the general will of the people as a whole guarantees individual against being subordinated to the wills of others and also ensures that they obey themselves because they are, collectively, the authors of the law. Although Rousseau argues that sovereignty (or the power to make the laws) should be in the hands of the people, he also makes a sharp distinction between the sovereign and the government. The government is composed of magistrates, charged with implementing and enforcing the general will. The “sovereign” is the rule of law, ideally decided on by direct democracy in an assembly.
Rousseau opposed the idea that the people should exercise sovereignty via a representative assembly. He approved the form of republican government of the city-state, for which Geneva provided a model—or would have done if renewed on Rousseau’s principles. France could not meet Rousseau’s criterion of an ideal state because it was too big. Much subsequent controversy about Rousseau’s work has hinged on disagreements concerning his claims that citizens constrained to obey the general will be thereby rendered free: The notion of the general will is wholly central to Rousseau’s theory of political legitimacy. … It is, however, an unfortunately obscure and controversial notion. Some commentators see it as no more than the dictatorship of the proletariat or the tyranny of the urban poor (such as may perhaps be seen in the French Revolution). Such was not Rousseau’s meaning. This is clear from the Discourse on Political Economy, where Rousseau emphasizes that the general will exists to protect individuals against the mass, not to require them to be sacrificed to it. He is, of course, sharply aware that men have selfish and sectional interests which will lead them to try to oppress others. It is for this reason that loyalty to the good of all alike must be a supreme commitment by everyone, not only if a truly general will is to be heeded but also if it is to be formulated successfully in the first place”.
Rousseau offers a wealth of economic thought in his writings, especially the Discourse on Inequality, Discourse on Political Economy, the Social Contract, as well as his constitutional projects for Corsica and Poland. Rousseau’s economic theory has been criticised as sporadic and unrigorous by later economists such as Joseph Schumpeter, but has been praised by historians of economic thought for its nuanced view of finance and mature thought on development. Scholars generally accept that Rousseau offers a critique of modern wealth and luxury. Moreover, Rousseau’s economic thought is associated with agrarianism and Autarkism. Historian Istvan Hont modifies this reading, however, by suggesting that Rousseau is both a critic and a thinker of commerce, leaving room for well-regulated commerce within a well-governed civil space. Political theorists Ryan Hanley and Hansong Li further argue that as a modern legislator, Rousseau seeks not to reject, but to tame utility, self-love, and even trade, finance, and luxury to serve the health of the republic.
Education and child rearing
Rousseau’s philosophy of education concerns itself not with particular techniques of imparting information and concepts, but rather with developing the pupil’s character and moral sense, so that he may learn to practice self-mastery and remain virtuous even in the unnatural and imperfect society in which he will have to live. A hypothetical boy, Émile, is to be raised in the countryside, which, Rousseau believes, is a more natural and healthy environment than the city, under the guardianship of a tutor who will guide him through various learning experiences arranged by the tutor. Today we would call this the disciplinary method of “natural consequences”. Rousseau felt that children learn right and wrong through experiencing the consequences of their acts rather than through physical punishment. The tutor will make sure that no harm results to Émile through his learning experiences. Rousseau became an early advocate of developmentally appropriate education; his description of the stages of child development mirrors his conception of the evolution of culture. He divides childhood into stages: the first to the age of about 12, when children are guided by their emotions and impulses. during the second stage, from 12 to about 16, reason starts to develop. finally, the third stage, from the age of 16 onwards, when the child develops into an adult. Rousseau recommends that the young adult learn a manual skill such as carpentry, which requires creativity and thought, will keep him out of trouble, and will supply a fallback means of making a living in the event of a change of fortune (the most illustrious aristocratic youth to have been educated this way may have been Louis XVI, whose parents had him learn the skill of locksmithing). The sixteen-year-old is also ready to have a companion of the opposite sex.
Although his ideas foreshadowed modern ones in many ways, in one way they do not: Rousseau was a believer in the moral superiority of the patriarchal family on the antique Roman model. Sophie, the young woman Émile is destined to marry, as his representative of ideal womanhood, is educated to be governed by her husband while Émile, as his representative of the ideal man, is educated to be self-governing. This is not an accidental feature of Rousseau’s educational and political philosophy; it is essential to his account of the distinction between private, personal relations and the public world of political relations. The private sphere, as Rousseau imagines it, depends on the subordination of women for both it and the public political sphere (upon which it depends) to function as Rousseau imagines it could and should. Rousseau anticipated the modern idea of the bourgeois nuclear family, with the mother at home taking responsibility for the household and for childcare and early education.
Feminists, beginning in the late 18th century with Mary Wollstonecraft in 1792, have criticized Rousseau for his confinement of women to the domestic sphere. Unless women were domesticated and constrained by modesty and shame, he feared “men would be tyrannized by women … For, given the ease with which women arouse men’s senses—men would finally be their victims …” His contemporaries saw it differently because Rousseau thought that mothers should breastfeed their children. Marmontel wrote that his wife thought, “One must forgive something,” she said, “in one who has taught us to be mothers: Rousseau’s ideas have influenced progressive “child-centered” education. John Darling’s 1994 book Child-Centered Education and its Critics portrays the history of modern educational theory as a series of footnotes to Rousseau, a development he regards as bad. The theories of educators such as Rousseau’s near contemporaries Pestalozzi, Mme. de Genlis and, later, Maria Montessori and John Dewey, which have directly influenced modern educational practices, have significant points in common with those of Rousseau.
Having converted to Roman Catholicism early in life and returned to the austere Calvinism of his native Geneva as part of his period of moral reform, Rousseau maintained a profession of that religious philosophy and of John Calvin as a modern lawgiver throughout the remainder of his life. Unlike many of the more agnostic Enlightenment philosophers, Rousseau affirmed the necessity of religion. His views on religion presented in his works of philosophy, however, may strike some as discordant with the doctrines of both Catholicism and Calvinism. Rousseau’s strong endorsement of religious toleration, as expounded in Émile, was interpreted as advocating indifferentism, a heresy, and led to the condemnation of the book in both Calvinist Geneva and Catholic Paris. Although he praised the Bible, he was disgusted by the Christianity of his day. Rousseau’s assertion in The Social Contract that true followers of Christ would not make good citizens may have been another reason for his condemnation in Geneva. He also repudiated the doctrine of original sin, which plays a large part in Calvinism. In his “Letter to Beaumont”, Rousseau wrote, “there is no original perversity in the human heart”. In the 18th century, many deists viewed God merely as an abstract and impersonal creator of the universe, likened to a giant machine. Rousseau’s deism differed from the usual kind in its emotionality. He saw the presence of God in the creation as good, and separate from the harmful influence of society. Rousseau’s attribution of a spiritual value to the beauty of nature anticipates the attitudes of 19th-century Romanticism towards nature and religion. Rousseau was upset that his deism was so forcefully condemned, while those of the more atheistic philosophers were ignored. He defended himself against critics of his religious views in his “Letter to Mgr de Beaumont, the Archbishop of Paris”, “in which he insists that freedom of discussion in religious matters is essentially more religious than the attempt to impose belief by force”.